In the continuing dilemma over determining just what kind of asset a cryptocurrency is, multiple regulators have expressed opinions and differing views on regulations. Likewise, multiple regulators have conducted investigations and initiated enforcement proceedings against those in the cybersecurity space. The SEC has asserted the opinion that most, if not all, cryptocurrencies are securities; the CFTC has found them to be commodities; the IRS’s official definition is the same as the CFTC, and in particular a digital representation of value that functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value, and now the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has asserted that issuers of cryptocurrencies are money transmitters.
In particular, in a letter written to the US Senate Committee on Finance on February 13, 2018, FinCEN indicates that it expects issuers of initial coin offerings (ICOs) to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), including its anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC) requirements. FinCEN’s letter responded to a December 14, 2017 directed to it from the US Senate Committee on Finance requesting information on FinCEN’s oversight and enforcement capabilities over virtual currency financial activities. As with other agencies such as the SEC and CFTC, FinCEN desires to promote the financial innovation that can come with blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, while preventing criminals, hackers, sanctions evaders and hostile foreign actors.
Virtual currency exchanges and administrators
FinCEN has been working with the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (FTI) to ensure that AML and procedures to combat the financing of terrorism apply to virtual currency exchanges and administrators that are in the US or do business in whole or part in the US, but do not have a physical presence here. Virtual currency exchanges and administrators have been subject to the BSA’s money transmitter requirements since 2011. In 2013 FinCEN issued specific guidance that explicitly states that virtual currency exchanges and administrators are money transmitters that must comply with the BSA. An exchange that sells ICO coins or tokens, or exchanges them for other virtual currency, fiat currency or other value that substitutes for currency, is a money transmitter that is subject to the BSA.
To assist in identifying risks and the illicit use of virtual currency, including the abuse of virtual currency to facilitate cyber crime, money laundering, terrorist financing, black market sales of illegal or illicit products and services and other high-tech crimes, FinCEN examines BSA filings from virtual currency money services businesses (MSB) and other emerging payments providers, including filings pertaining to digital coins, tokens and ICOs. Trends, red flags and risks and reported to US law enforcement and other governmental agencies.
Entities that are subject to the BSA must: (i) register with FinCEN as a MSB; (ii) prepare a written AML compliance program that is designed to mitigate risks, including AML risks, and to ensure compliance with all BSA requirements including the filing of suspicious activity reports (SAR) and currency transaction reports; (iii) keep records for certain types of transactions at specific thresholds; and (iv) obtain customer identification information sufficient to comply with the AML program and recordkeeping requirements.
SAR reports that are filed with FinCEN have identifying information about the owner/customer. In cases where a bitcoin address is identified, FinCEN performs a blockchain analysis which can often enable investigators to tie it to a virtual currency exchanger, hosted wallet, or other source that may have the identity of the account owner. Blockchain network analytic tools can also tie a targeted bitcoin address to other persons that have transacted with a particular bitcoin address. The investigative process may involve the issuance of subpoenas and FinCEN cooperates with law enforcement to help identify and trace bitcoin used in criminal activity.
FinCEN also conducts reviews and exams of registered MSBs. Of the approximate 100 registered entities, FinCEN has examined approximately one-third and has initiated several enforcement proceedings as a result of those exams. However, financial crimes and terrorism are international issues and not all countries regulate virtual currency businesses or require them to keep records. Accordingly, FinCEN has been working to encourage foreign countries to regulate these businesses and to cooperate in criminal investigations.
FinCEN is working with the SEC and CFTC to clarify and enforce AML and counterterrorism obligations of businesses that engage in ICO activities. Although the FinCEN letter indicates that the obligation to comply with the BSA and its ensuing AML, registration, SAR and other requirements depends on the nature of the financial activity and a facts-and-circumstances analysis, ICO participants have unilaterally interpreted the FinCEN letter as requiring all ICO issuers to comply in one way or another.
FinCEN specifically states that an issuer that sells convertible virtual currency, including in the form of ICO coins or tokens, in exchange for another type of value, including fiat currency, is a money transmitter that must register as an MSB and comply with the BSA, including AML and KYC procedures. However, to the extent that an ICO involves the sale of securities or derivatives that would be under the jurisdiction of the SEC through its regulation of broker-dealers or CFTC through its regulation of merchants and brokers in commodities, those entities could comply with the SEC and CFTC’s AML and counterterrorism requirements.
The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) specifically requires brokerage firms to comply with the BSA and FinCEN rules. Brokerage firms are also required to comply with AML rules established by FINRA, including FINRA Rule 3310. The purpose of the AML rules is to help detect and report suspicious activity including the predicate offenses to money laundering and terrorist financing, such as securities fraud and market manipulation. FINRA also provides a template to assist small firms in establishing and complying with AML procedures.
In May 2016, FinCEN issued new final rules under the BSA requiring financing institutions, including brokerage firms, to adopt additional anti-money laundering (AML) procedures that include specific due diligence and ongoing monitoring requirements related to customer risk profiles and customer information. The rules also require financial institutions to collect and verify information about beneficial owners and control person of legal entity customers. My blog on those rules can be read HERE.
FinCEN requires that financial institutions address the following four key elements in all of their AML programs: (i) customer identification and verification; (ii) beneficial ownership identification and verification; (iii) understanding the nature and purpose of customer relationships to develop risk profiles; and (iv) ongoing monitoring for reporting suspicious transactions and maintaining and updating customer information.
Further Reading on DLT/Blockchain and ICOs
For a review of the 2014 case against BTC Trading Corp. for acting as an unlicensed broker-dealer for operating a bitcoin trading platform, see HERE.
For an introduction on distributed ledger technology, including a summary of FINRA’s Report on Distributed Ledger Technology and Implication of Blockchain for the Securities Industry, see HERE.
For a discussion on the Section 21(a) Report on the DAO investigation, statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement related to the investigative report and the SEC’s Investor Bulletin on ICOs, see HERE.
For a summary of SEC Chief Accountant Wesley R. Bricker’s statements on ICOs and accounting implications, see HERE.
For an update on state-distributed ledger technology and blockchain regulations, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and NASAA statements on ICOs and updates on enforcement proceedings as of January 2018, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and CFTC joint statements on cryptocurrencies, including The Wall Street Journal op-ed article and information on the International Organization of Securities Commissions statement and warning on ICOs, see HERE.
For a review of the CFTC role and position on cryptocurrencies, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and CFTC testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Banking Housing and Urban Affairs hearing on “Virtual Currencies: The Oversight Role of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission,” see HERE.
To learn about SAFTs and the issues with the SAFT investment structure, see HERE.
For more information on platforms that trade cryptocurrencies and more on the continued regulatory confusion in the space, see HERE.
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